Last month, I started us off with an overview of the Google that most people know best—the upstart company whose search engine dominates the Internet. This month, I promised to expound upon some of the Google tools that are just as impacting as the search engine. Google supports some very interesting tools and customization for your web site through business products, bizsolutions.google.com/services. There are way too many to cover in this short space, so we’ll just review some of my favorites…
Google Maps/Google Earth
If you have stuck it out as a MapQuest user, it may be time to get into the world of updated area maps and custom web site tools. I find that Google Maps, maps.google.com, is much better updated than MapQuest, which is important with the amount of new construction in progress. As a business owner, you can enter your business location on the map that is sure to be found when a viewer is searching for you through Google. We have also discovered that Google Maps extends beautifully into Joomla! to show multiple locations for your business, dealer locations, etc.
Google Maps offers the ability to store your locations, just like MapQuest, and you can store multiple destinations, too. You can create "legs" of a trip, where you have multiple destinations in one trip, and depending upon the features that you enable, Google Maps will show you different types of businesses and organizations along the way. Think, "Where will I stop for lunch…I don’t know that part of town."
One of the first attractions we had to Google Maps was the satellite view. It was very cool to see the aerial view of our homes. Better still, when you are seeking directions, you can click on the satellite view to really see where you’ll be going—trees that may obstruct your view from the road; what stores line the intersection where you’ll be turning—it’s like being there before you get there. Viewing these maps took us to the next level—Google Earth.
Google Earth is very educational; in fact, my 9-year old has been around the world many times and has "seen" the Eiffel Tower, the Burj Dubai under construction, and the Nile to name a few. We have taken a virtual rafting trip through the Grand Canyon and checked out which skyscrapers fringe Central Park. My son’s favorite part is SketchUp, which allows the viewer to construct buildings to display in 3-D. Whether you are working or playing, Google Maps/Google Earth will get you where you’re going.
Now that most companies are firmly entrenched in Microsoft Office, Google pairs up the business class version of G-Mail with web-based Google Apps. I once read an interview that quoted Google leader Page to say that Microsoft didn’t really own the world. Proving that point, Google Apps offers mail, calendaring, document creation (word processing), spreadsheets, and a handy container to hold it all called "start page."
We became aware of the business version of Gmail first. Gmail has long been the free-mail of choice in the technical world because of the large amount of storage space available (now up to 10GB). That space gave users the ability to send large files like pictures or programs when their corporate accounts might not handle it.
Now, Google puts a new twist on things by allowing businesses to outsource their entire mail domain to Google. Why would you do this? Three reasons: price, availability, reliability.
First of all, Google mail is free for most small businesses. When you exceed 100 mailboxes, you have to ask for more space. I know that your mom always warned you about free, but in this case, free also gives you access to servers that are some of the best supported in the world. Have you ever started a Google search, only to get "server not found"? Uh-huh. Have you ever seen a Google message saying, "We’ll be temporarily shut down for a software upgrade"? No, never. Free, in this case, actually buys you into some of the best supported and best protected servers in the world. Our company provides great support, but can we match thousands of Google employees in terms of hardware uptime and security? Probably not.
Down the road, Google may decide to charge for this service, but the premium pricing is $50/user/year, which is still much more than reasonable. Since outsourcing mail probably means removing that load from your web server, you’re also helping your web site’s availability as well.
Gmail works in a web-based interface or with your favorite desktop or mobile phone e-mail provider. There’s also a handy little IM tool bundled in for good measure.
If only I could convert everyone to Google Calendar, the world would be much better scheduled. As a project manager, not having access to my calendar gives me the shivers. Google Calendar allows you to keep your schedule while allowing your business associates, fellow organizational members, etc., to share their calendar with you as well. You can send meeting invitations to anyone (whether they use Google Calendar or not), create repeating events, and utilize the hundreds of public Google calendars (like U.S. holidays or religious holidays).
Docs & Spreadsheets
I guess Google thinks that if you’re going to be weaned from Outlook, you might as well ditch the bulk of Office. Docs and Spreadsheets are pretty much Microsoft Word and Excel but living on the Internet instead of your desktop. If you are a basic Word and Excel user, these tools are fine. If you’re accomplished and use any of the programmatic features of these applications, you’ll find these tools too simple to actually replace Office. If you’re tallying up baseball scores, it’s great. If you have a complex application built in Excel or Word (fill-in forms, cell validation, etc.), you’ll have to continue feeding the Microsoft machine.
One very cool feature that doesn’t exist by default in the Microsoft world—you can save your documents and spreadsheets to a PDF for easy, protected transport. Also, because this tool is plugged into the Google business apps, it provides automatic sharing of documents and spreadsheets to associates within your own domain. This is an exceptional feature that consumes none of your hard drive space—definitely worth reviewing.
When you have outsourced your mail domain and have decided to drink the Google Kool-Aid, you have access to what Google calls your Start Page. This is simply a catch-all location from which you can launch other Google applications. It acts as a dashboard for e-mail, calendar, and documents. There are also some nice content items, like a weather plug-in, news, quote of the day, and vocabulary builders. Not exactly high productivity tools, but it’s nice to have everything accessible from one page, much like your desktop full of icons.
I’ve always been insistent upon teaching our clients about web statistics. It is probably the most overlooked aspect of web site marketing. Many business owners believe the information is too complicated for them to understand, but statistics are how you know what your web site is actually doing for your company! I rarely see anyone get as excited about statistics as when we began delivering Google Analytics to our clients. Another free service from Google, Analytics offers an amazingly detailed understanding of the experience each viewer is really having on your site.
My favorite tool within Analytics is the page overlay, which actually overlays your site pages with a screen that shows how many clicks each link on your page receives. Talk about seeing the big picture!
To learn about Google Analytics, go to services.google.com/analytics. Click on "Watch the Tour" for a great overview of the product.
So you may be asking yourself if I’m shooting for a position with the marketing team at Google. I just like to share a good thing when I learn about it—especially when it’s something free that rivals or exceeds products for which you are paying. All in all, these Google business applications can help link together the members of your organization, especially for small businesses. Google is beginning to corner the market on collaboration in a very stealthy, grass-roots kind of way. To get more information or see what these tools are all about, go to www.google.com/a. There are many other available utilities, so see which ones you fancy.
Microsoft, Google, and Kool-Aid are registered trademarks